A little more from Saturday’s conference – in the afternoon I chaired a panel discussion, ‘Greens Leading the Change’ with guests Mairead McCafferty, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, John O’Doherty, Director of the Rainbow Project, Dawn Purvis, former leader of the PUP and Alex Kane, the political commentator. We discussed four areas where the Green Party has been to the forefront in pushing for change: the children’s sector, LGBTQ rights, women’s reproductive rights and the need for an Opposition at Stormont. It was a fascinating discussion, with such entertaining and informed speakers, and though I was nervous, they made the job of chair as easy as it could be.
Yesterday was a historic day – Steven’s Children’s Bill was passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly – only the fifth Private Member’s Bill ever to have succeeded in Stormont, and the second piece of Green Party legislation to have become law in the UK (the first was Patrick Harvie’s bill about hate crimes which was passed by the Scottish Parliament). Many congratulations to Steven, Ross who carried out much of the research, and all the children’s sector organisations who supported this so wholeheartedly.
In other news:
1. The parish discussion group about Laudato Si last night was massively underestimated – Father Joe was expecting six of us, hoping for ten, and got around twenty-five.
2. I went out in a boat this afternoon to look at some raw sewage. I’ll excuse you the photographs for now, but am hoping that I’ll be able to do something to help.
3. Following my posts about the equal marriage debate, I got myself into a Sluggerstorm. I suspect it may not end here.
This photograph was taken in January, when Steven Agnew came across to Fermanagh to visit the Erne Integrated College. Here he is, talking to some of the sixth form about Green principles, being an MLA, and their views of politics and society. It was just after the ‘Curry my yoghurt’ furore, but none of us knew quite how bad relations between the Executive parties were going to become.
Today Theresa Villiers has published the Assessment on paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. It makes sobering, but not altogether hopeless reading. Much now depends on the response of the Executive and former Executive parties. Will they have the courage and humility to use this as an opportunity to seek common ground, to build more deep-rooted structures and to jettison their prejudices? Or are we back once more to the same zero-sum game?
Meanwhile, the few MLAs on the opposition benches have been trying to keep the Assembly doing what it ought to do – working for the good of the people of Northern Ireland. As Steven says, on the Green Party in Northern Ireland website and in the Belfast Telegraph:
“I was proud to be elected as an MLA to serve the North Down constituency, as I thought I would be able to work to make a positive difference to people’s lives both there and across Northern Ireland. Not that long ago I was sitting in the Assembly chamber until late into the evening. Debates on welfare reform and planning were lengthy, as they should be, to ensure that a broad spectrum of opinion was put forwards.
Contrast this with the current situation. Ministers are absent, sometimes. Question time is short. Bills have fallen. The Assembly has risen early in the afternoon due to non-debate. However it’s not all bad news. Those of us on the back benches continue to work to bring forward legislation. For example John McAllister has brought forward his Bill to create an official opposition and Jim Allister continues to bring forward legislation regarding special advisors.
In particular, I am looking forward to the final consideration stage of my Children’s Bill, which is designed to bring about a statutory duty on all Executive departments to collaborate and work together in the commissioning and delivery of children’s services. It will enable the education and health sectors to pool resources so that, for example, a child who uses a wheel chair will be able to access the physiotherapy that they need in school without any argument over budget allocations. The child will be put at the centre of decision making. In short, it will help ensure that our children are afforded an equal opportunity to reach their full potential.
I am pleased that the Children’s Bill has received cross-party support from all sides. It shows that it is possible for MLAs to work together. Up until now I have been working with OFMDFM to ensure that I bring forward a good, effective Bill. Under the current political circumstances that has proved difficult, although I continue to engage with each of the parties individually. I am determined that legislation as important as this should not fall by the wayside. We should not waste any opportunity to bring about positive change for our children.”
Here is Steven Agnew, last Tuesday, presenting his Children’s Bill at the Northern Ireland Assembly. The screenshot is from the Stormont Today coverage of the Bill, which you can watch again (for a while) on BBC iPlayer here (beginning around seven minutes in).
It is ironic, as was pointed out, that this Bill, which is all about co-operation between departments and agencies for the benefit of Northern Ireland’s children, should have been debated in the midst of so much non-co-operation, gamesplaying and petty point-scoring on the part of the Executive parties. As I write, yet another week of talks is beginning, with the same items on the agenda. As Peter McBride said on Sunday Politics yesterday (48 mins in), the problem isn’t so much the issues with which they are struggling, but how they are going about it, the mechanisms and behaviours that ‘shock the public’.
As Steven has been saying, it is time for a new civic conversation, time for the wider society in Northern Ireland and the individuals which it comprises to bring their own experience, good sense and wisdom to bear upon the vital questions of our political future. The continuation and transformation of our devolved government and assembly, the right of people in Northern Ireland to take charge of their own destiny, these are too important to be entrusted entirely to squabbling old enemies. It is our children, and theirs in turn, who will bear the burden of decisions made now, and for their sake we should be demanding more.
Today Steven Agnew’s Children’s Bill will be considered by the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont. As I’ll be very busy all day, at the Fermanagh Churches Forum conference, I’ll cheat a bit and cut and paste what I said about the Bill back in January when it had its second stage.
The background to the Bill goes back fifteen years, to the tragic death of little Victoria Climbié in London. The subsequent inquiry found that the uncoordinated and disjointed nature of children’s services in the UK at the time was a central factor in the failure to protect Victoria from those who were abusing her. As a result of the inquiry’s recommendations, the Children Act 2004 was passed, promoting co-ordination between official bodies in order to ensure the welfare of children in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland, however, apart from legislation specifically dealing with at-risk children, there is no such statutory duty.
Why does this matter? Child poverty is a huge problem in Northern Ireland, with 21% of children living in persistent poverty, double the rate in Great Britain. Despite the fact that government spending per person is higher here than in the rest of the UK, children’s welfare lags behind. Experts and organisations dealing with children’s interests agree that a greater level of co-operation would result in better, safer and happier lives for children across Northern Ireland.
Steven’s Bill therefore sets out a list of outcomes which have been agreed in the Children’s Strategy. These are:
(a) being healthy;
(b) enjoying learning and achieving;
(c) living in safety and with stability;
(d) experiencing economic and environmental well-being;
(e) contributing positively to community and society; and
(f) living in a society which respects their rights.
The Bill requires government departments, local authorities, education boards, health trusts, the police etc. to work together to achieve these, and to report on their progress. It also enables them to pool funds and resources in order to act as effectively as possible.
Before introducing the Bill, Steven consulted widely among relevant organisations, MLAs and MPs. The response was loud and clear, as explained in the note accompanying the Bill:
“Every respondent supported the principles of the Bill and the introduction of a statutory duty to co-operate on children’s services. Of those respondents who directly answered the relevant questions: every respondent stated that the introduction of a duty to co-operate would make co-operation more likely; every respondent stated that there was presently a lack of collaboration within government in relation to children’s services; every respondent stated that greater collaboration between government departments and agencies would improve the outcomes for children and young people; every respondent expressed strong support for an enabling power to pool budgets; some respondents highlighted that they considered an enabling power to pool budgets absolutely essential; and every respondent stated that there was currently insufficient co-operation in planning, commissioning and delivering children’s services and in the pooling of budgets.”
There can be no room, in the vital task of making life better for Northern Ireland’s children, for petty partisanship or a ‘silo mentality’ on the part of government departments. I trust that all MLAs who are concerned about the future of our children will vote in favour of this Bill.
The wider effect, here as in most constituencies of Northern Ireland, is a Hobson’s choice between Tory and Tory.
The Ulster Unionists have of course traditionally been allied with the Conservative party, albeit perhaps a less abrasive, more paternalistic old-school Toryism. But this ‘pact’ is looking dangerously like the end for the UUP, and its absorption into the the DUP, whose corporate agenda marches even more closely to the beat of Cameron and Osborne.
As for Sinn Fein’s politicians, we know that they’ve learned all the right buzzwords – equality, progressive politics, anti-austerity. But we also know that, by their own admission, these are a ‘Trojan Horse‘ to smuggle in their own agenda: an authoritarian republicanism that puts an obsession with ‘the border’ over the interests of people on either side of it. While they talk about protecting the most vulnerable, they, along with the DUP are desperate to reduce corporation tax, a move which would do nothing but transfer wealth to the richest, while inflicting enormous damage on our real economy. It is quite clear, from their excuses for not signing Steven’s Agnew’s petition about Tamboran’s fracking licence to their hokey-cokey dance on welfare reform, that their paramount priority in the North is retaining their cosy power-share with the DUP. And meanwhile they don’t even take their seats in Westminster, to speak on the vital issues that face the UK as a whole and make common cause with those who really believe in an alternative to Tory brutality.
So, vote unionist and you get DUP/Tory; vote Sinn Fein and you get DUP/Tory.
Or you could try something different. In the Assembly, Green Party in Northern Ireland leader Steven Agnew has been acknowledged as the real opposition to the Executive parties’ conservative consensus. It was Steven who understood that, if you want to protect people from the worst excesses of benefit cuts, you amend the Bill to make it fairer before passing it, rather than inventing a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul magical money mountain to compensate people later. As he knows, you can’t compensate anyone for the humiliation, pain and grief of undertaking the cruel corporately-adminstered work assessment tests that Steven’s dismissed amendments would have prevented. It was Steven who led the Assembly campaign against fracking, brought in the Children’s Bill to make departments co-operate in children’s interests, and spearheaded campaigns for countless other issues that really matter to the people of Northern Ireland.
In Westminster, the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas has played the same role, as the effective opposition to Tory cruelty and cronyism. Whether on war, welfare, fracking or free speech, Caroline has taken up the baton so carelessly dropped by the Labour Party and has run her socks off with it. Across the House of Commons, even her fiercest enemies acknowledge her hard work, effectiveness, meticulous research and entirely ethical, principled stance on every issue. If only one Green MP can achieve so much, just imagine what more of us could do…
This election is an opportunity for the voters of Northern Ireland to endorse the old sectarian politics represented by these pacts and abstentions, to accept the narrow focus of them-and-us battles and to resign themselves to another five years of Toryism, whatever official label it may have. And remember, the cuts have scarcely yet started here.
Or you can use your vote to send a different message, to let the inclusive celebration of yesterday spill over into tomorrow, to put the real needs of real people before ancient quarrels. You can use your vote to say that enough is enough, and you won’t be fooled or threatened into handing over yet more power and resources to the very rich and the parties that do their bidding. You can use your vote to bring about a different sort of politics, and a better sort of future. It’s up to you.
I managed to watch quite a bit of the debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly yesterday (via its website; not in person) though I missed the actual vote, as I was teaching by then. All went well, and Steven Agnew’s bill passed through its second stage unopposed. Congratulations to Steven and all those who have worked so hard on this.
I also watched some of the Infrastructure Bill debate in the House of Commons but again had to go (to an Erne Integrated College governors’ meeting) before the messy bit. Basically what happened was that the government made a few apparent concessions (this site has a good summary) which were sufficient to stem most of its own threatened backbench revolt, and to allow the Labour Party to claim that it had achieved something. Within moments, Labour MPs were tweeting that the Tories had made a ‘U-turn on fracking’, a line enthusiastically taken up by the Guardian.
This was no U-turn. This wasn’t even a change of gear. At the very most, this was a brief glance in the rear view mirror before accelerating ahead. As the Department for Energy and Climate Change has said:
“Labour’s proposals are already Government policy, carried out voluntarily by industry or as part of Environment Agency or HSE every day working practice. We have agreed to accept this amendment, to provide clear reassurance in law, and to give this nascent industry has the best possible chance of success.”
All this left no time for the moratorium amendment by Caroline Lucas and others to be debated. It went to a vote, and was defeated by 308 votes to 52. The list of those voting in favour comprises:
14 Lib Dem
5 Scottish National Party
2 Social Democratic and Labour Party
2 Plaid Cymru
Readers of this blog may be interested to know how MPs representing Northern Ireland constituencies voted (or didn’t). All of the NI members must by now be fully aware of the issue, of the effects of fracking and of the importance of this vote. Here they are:
1 Belfast East Naomi Long Alliance – voted for moratorium
2 Belfast North Nigel Dodds DUP – didn’t vote
3 Belfast South Alasdair McDonnell SDLP – didn’t vote
4 Belfast West Paul Maskey SF – didn’t vote
5 East Antrim Sammy Wilson DUP – voted against moratorium
6 East Londonderry Gregory Campbell DUP – didn’t vote
7 Fermanagh & South Tyrone Michelle Gildernew SF – didn’t vote
8 Foyle Mark Durkan SDLP – voted for moratorium
9 Lagan Valley Jeffrey Donaldson DUP – didn’t vote
10 Mid Ulster Francie Molloy SF- didn’t vote
11 Newry & Armagh Conor Murphy SF – didn’t vote
12 North Antrim Ian Paisley DUP – didn’t vote
13 North Down Sylvia Hermon Ind – didn’t vote
14 South Antrim William NcCrea DUP – didn’t vote
15 South Down Margaret Ritchie SDLP – voted for moratorium
16 Strangford Jim Shannon DUP – didn’t vote
17 Upper Bann David Simpson DUP – didn’t vote
18 West Tyrone Pat Doherty SF – didn’t vote
Within the fourteen ‘didn’t votes’ I haven’t distinguished between any who might have been present but abstained (unlikely), those who have anachronistic ideological reasons for not taking their seats, those whose ‘double-jobbing’ kept them busy elsewhere (though Sammy Wilson managed to play an active part in the Stormont debate and to get to the House of Commons in time to cast his vote firmly in favour of fracking; a fact his Carrickfergus constituents will no doubt wish to note) and those who simply didn’t care, or not quite enough. In the end, it hardly matters. They let us down just the same way, no matter what their excuse.
Out canvassing in the cold this evening, we were discussing issues that are of particular concern to local people. One was the gritting of roads, in the ice and snow that have gripped Fermanagh this week. It seems that the policy governing which roads will be treated basically looks at the number of households in the area, and prioritises them accordingly. That might initially sound fair enough, until you remember that houses aren’t the only buildings that are reached along a particular road.
St Mary’s Primary School, Mullymesker, part of the Claddagh Glen Schools Together community, one of the projects we discussed with the Fermanagh Trust this month, is just outside the small village of Arney. (Mullymesker itself is what we call in Ireland a ‘townland‘, the smallest geographical area recorded, dating back to before the Norman invasion.) According to Wikipedia, Arney, even with its neighbour Skea, has a population of only 114 people. It might be understandable, therefore, that at a time of tightened resources, Arney wouldn’t get its roads gritted. But St Mary’s school has around 150 pupils, all of whom have to get to school somehow, whether on foot, by bike, bus or car. Surely, therefore, it would make sense for the stretch of road between Arney and Bellanaleck village (which is on the main Enniskillen to Dublin road – see map) to receive treatment so that the children can get to school safely?
A road accident, as most of us are only too aware, brings enormous costs, both to the individuals involved and to the wider society. Some of those costs are financial, but the most important are emotional, often affecting those involved for the rest of their lives. Even a near miss; a skid on an icy road, can cost a driver his or her confidence, and be incredibly frightening for a child.
The truth is, of course, that there should be no competition for essential safety works like treating icy roads (and pavements too, which are largely disregarded, as I discovered when I walked into town this morning). If the UK can afford a bank bailout of £850 billion (and counting) and £100 billion on renewing the equally useless Trident missiles, it can certainly manage to pay for a a bit of grit-spreading.
And it’s part of a wider issue, as well. It’s easy for bureaucrats and politicians seeking cost-savings to look at those simple, low-profile services that don’t get much attention, and think that cutting them will be an easy option. No one makes much of a fuss, and if they do, it’s probably not dramatic enough to create much publicity. But those cuts have effects, and those effects mushroom until things go wrong quite drastically, and it’s too late. Look at the cuts to social care, and how they have led to desperately overstretched A&E departments right across the country.
Similarly, cuts to legal aid, to very low-cost and straightforward solicitors’ advice, leads to people being embroiled in court cases that were entirely avoidable, having to represent themselves in court, and taking many hours and days of highly expensive court time, all, ultimately at the public expense.
In the Northern Ireland Assembly, of course, the problem is exacerbated by departments led by ministers who are (at least as far as they represent themselves to the electorate) political enemies There is no incentive for them to consider the effects of their actions on other departments, and no encouragement to co-operate in the provision of services. This is why Steven Agnew’s Children’s Bill is so desperately needed.
What we need, more urgently than ever, is an allocation of public money that looks at outcomes, decides on what our priorities are, and provides the funding where it is needed, instead of doling out arbitrary sums to different departments and local authorities, and hoping that they will spend it wisely. Among those outcomes that we, I hope, all agree upon, is the need for our children to be safe, emotionally and physically secure, and to receive a good, wise and creative education to prepare them for the challenges ahead. And if that takes a few bags of grit, I think we ought to provide it.